"However Extravagant the Pretension": Bivocalism and U.S. Nation-Building In A Narrative ofthe Life of Mrs Mary Jemison

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Overseas Publishers Association/Taylor & Francis


Over a period of 3 days in November 1823, Mary Jemison delivered an oral account of her life to Dr James Seaver, who published the resulting Narrative of the Life of Mrs Mary Jemison in 1824. At the time of her interview with Seaver, Jemison had lived for nearly 70 years with the Seneca Indians, since being taken captive at the age of fifteen by the Shawnee and French during the Seven Years' War. When Jemison was sold by the Shawnee to the Seneca as a young captive, she was ritually adopted into a Seneca family, taking the place of a deceased son and brother. In his introduction to the book, Seaver indicates that Jemison's ability to speak English was nearly all that remained of her European origins, since she otherwise appeared "sensible of her ignorance of the manners of the white people" (xxix).1 Indeed, Seaver's detailed descriptions of her person and behavior portray her as a Seneca Indian woman: her dress "was made and worn after the Indian fashion" (xxviii), her posture was the result of "her having for a long time been accustomed to carrying heavy burdens in a strap placed across her forehead" (xxvi), and "from her long residence with the Indians, she has acquired the habit of peeping from under eye-brows as they do" (xxvii). Likewise, "[h]er habits, are those of the Indians" and "[h]er ideas of religion, correspond in every respect with those of the great mass of Senecas" (xxx).